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REGULAR PRESS BRIEFING BY THE INFORMATION SERVICE
17 December 2013

Alessandra Vellucci, Chief of the Press and External Relations Section of the United Nations Information Service in Geneva, chaired the briefing which was attended by the Spokespersons for the United Nations-Arab League Joint Special Representative for Syria, United Nations Refugee Agency, World Food Programme, International Organization for Migration, Human Rights Council, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, World Health Organization, United Nations Conference for Trade and Development, and Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

International Conference on Syria

Khawla Mattar, Spokesperson for the UN-AL Joint Special Representative for Syria (JSR), stated that, due to logistical reasons, the international conference on Syria, would open in Montreux on 22 January. The conference would resume on 24 January at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, where the two Syrian delegations would sit together with the JSR and start the negotiations. The talks would then continue over the weekend. Ms. Mattar added that there would be no meetings on 23 January.

Asked why 22 January had been chosen as a date, given the logistical challenges in Geneva that week, Ms. Mattar explained that the date had been selected on the basis of urgency expressed by the UN Secretary-General, and the agreement by the initiating countries, the United States and Russia. After the date had been chosen, it was realized that there would be other events taking place in Geneva at the same time.

Ms. Mattar said that the logistical matters were being looked at by the UN and the Swiss authorities, which were providing all the necessary support. There would be a lot of space for the media, and every effort would be made to ensure the best possible working conditions for them.

Answering why Montreux, and not another town, had been chosen, Ms. Mattar said that the key elements were the logistics, security, availability of accommodation and conference facilities. The UN and the Swiss Government had taken all those factors into consideration when making the decision. The conference would take place at the conference centre of the Montreux Palace.

Answering a question, Ms. Mattar said that the conference would take place in two parts: the first part in Montreux with delegations of all invited countries, which would have an opportunity to express their views on the issue. The second part would then be constricted only to the two Syrian delegations and JSR Brahimi. For this part, the JSR would like to see any interested and involved countries around to help the process if needed, but they would not be present in the negotiating room. Those talks would not be open-ended, and the time frame would be set once the negotiations started.

Ms. Vellucci informed that all the accreditations would be managed by the United Nations. There would be a special link on the UNOG website with all the information for the journalists.

A trilateral meeting between the JSR, US and Russian officials would take place at the Palais des Nations on 20 December. The trilateral group would then be joined by permanent representatives of other permanent members of the Security Council as well as of the League of Arab States, European Union and Syria’s immediate neighbours – Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey. The meeting would discuss many of the elements mentioned earlier for the conference on 22 January, such as the list of countries to be invited, and the compositions of the Syrian Government and opposition delegations. The JSR would like to know the names of participants as soon as possible, by the end of the year the latest, so that he could commence preliminary consultations with them.

Following the trilateral meeting on 20 December, Ms. Mattar said that JSR Brahimi would hold a press conference, probably around 5 – 5:30 p.m.

Syria Human Rights

Rolando Gomez, for the Human Rights Council (HRC), informed that on 19 December, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria would release “Without a trace: enforced disappearances in Syria”, a report addressing cases of enforced disappearances in Syria since the beginning of the conflict.

The second thematic report of the four-member Commission was going to highlight this phenomenon which had largely been overlooked until. The report charted the major trends and patterns characterizing the perpetration of enforced disappearance in Syria from March 2011 to November 2013 and drew from first-hand interviews conducted by the Commission over that period.

The report would be shared with the media at 9 a.m. on 19 December, under embargo until 12 noon, along with a press release. The Commissioners would be available to conduct a limited number of interviews, but they would not be in Geneva and there would be no press conference.

Asked about the current number of casualties in Syria, Ravina Shamdasani, for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that OHCHR was unable to provide updates at the moment. The latest updates had been provided in the summer. Ms. Shamdasani explained that OHCHR had never had access to the ground in Syria, and had always depended on people on the ground, namely reliable NGOs and civil society organizations, who were documenting the death toll. Now, the situation had become ever more complex and the sheer numbers had grown, which was making it increasingly difficult to uphold the high standards of verification of the incoming figures. In any case, the number was over 100,000 persons, which was an appalling figure by any measure.

Syria Public Health

Answering a question on the current polio situation in Syria, Tarik Jasareviæ, for the World Health Organization (WHO), said that the number of confirmed cases still stood at 17. More than 300,000 children had been vaccinated in October, and another round of vaccination had commenced last week, with the goal of revaccinating 2.2 million children in five rounds. Mr. Jasareviæ said that the overall percentage of immunization against polio and other diseases in Syria had dropped during the conflict.

Central African Republic (CAR)

Rolando Gomez, for the Human Rights Council (HRC), informed that, at the Human Rights Council meeting the previous day, the Permanent Representative of CAR to the UN at Geneva had emphasized that the country was going through a very grave crisis, which was showing no signs of ending soon. The African Group had supported the calls for convening a special session at the beginning of next year to address the dire situation in the country. The African Group had also called on the international community to support the humanitarian efforts currently underway in the Central African Republic. The United States, the European Union and France had delivered statements expressing the need for convening such a special session at the beginning of the year and also to accelerate the appointment of the special rapporteur on the CAR decided by the Council at its last session.

Answering a question, Mr. Gomez said that the date for the special session on CAR had not yet been decided, but it would possibly take place in the first half of January. For a special session to be called for, one third of the Council members – 16 States – would have to request it.

Elisabeth Byrs, for the World Food Programme (WFP), stated that the WFP had discussed its aid program with imams, priests as well as the leaders of different communities in Bangui in order to explain that the WFP’s help was totally impartial and neutral, and to ask for their help to ensure that the food distributions happened under the best possible security conditions. It was essential that the different communities cooperated and that the WFP explain to them that the less fragile people that were not receiving aid should not come to the distribution points.

On 16 December, WFP had assisted 17,396 beneficiaries with 40 tons of food in St Paul, Ouango. In total, WFP had assisted 97,549 people with 414 tons of food in Bangui since the beginning of the crisis.

As of the weekend of 14-15 December, WFP had reached 17 out of 24 sites for displaced people in and around Bangui.

Near the airport, WFP was providing food to some 40,000 people as many people displaced by violence were located there. The distributions had started on 13 December, halted over the weekend for security reasons and were due to resume on 17 December.

Ms. Byrs insisted that when there was a breakout of violence in a distribution point, it was evident that they had to stop and apply UN security rules otherwise the beneficiaries as well as the WFP staff could be put in danger.

On 16 December, in Bossangoa, 2,889 beneficiaries had received 42 tons of food. WFP was currently assisting displaced persons at three sites where both Muslim and Christian displaced people were gathered.

Answering questions, Ms. Byrs insisted on the fact that the UN and the WFP were present on the ground, but that the violence that had erupted on 5 December meant disruption to food distributions for several days. Food assistance had been already provided to 1,400 people and 5,600 people in two sites beforehand. AFP was active on the ground with mobile teams, which permitted them to halt and re-start the distributions when the security conditions permitted it.

Asked which were the groups threatening the security of UN staff in CAR. Ms. Byrs stated that the incident at the airport involved the arrival of young people with machetes which created a mass stampede. She added that WFP was trying to be as neutral and impartial as possible and that the French Army assured the security of the distributions.

WFP had provided food assistance to more than 500,000 people in CAR in 2013 and had introduced a new blanket supplementary feeding programme for 66,000 children aged between six and 35 months to prevent moderate acute malnutrition. WFP had nutrition activities for women, people suffering from AIDS, as well as emergency school feeding for children in Bouar, where almost 4,000 children were being assisted.

Ms. Byrs added that the UN Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS) flew to 27 locations and had carried some 8,000 passengers so far in 2013. The WFP had set the goal to help one million people or more, with the support of providers of funds. Ms. Byrs added that according to FAO estimates, 1,2 million people in CAR’s rural regions urgently needed alimentary assistance. Farmers were selling their tools as well as their livestock to feed their family. The price of food had increased rapidly, for instance, the price of corn had grown by 30 per cent between January and November.

Mr. Tarik Jasareviæ for the World Health Organization (WHO) stressed that the needs in the CAR were great and linked to the security situation, which hindered the UN and NGO movements as well as their operations or the sanitary situation. Half of the sanitary installations were out of service and the rest were out of stock of essential medicine for malaria, diarrhoea or sexually transmitted diseases.

Mr. Jasareviæ added that almost 80 per cent of the vaccination centers were out of order. There had been an epidemic outbreak of measles that had affected 15 out of 22 districts as well as a fresh outbreak of malaria that remained the first cause of mortality in the country. The WHO and the Health Ministry of the Central African Republic had put in place a crisis cell which goal was to coordinate the activities of various partners on a daily basis and to continuously evaluate the sanitary situation. A cartography of sanitary intervention and a list of medicine stock had been prepared in order to better determine the needs and priorities.

Mr. Jasareviæ announced that the WHO would soon open two more field offices, but for the moment the security situation did not permit them to reopen their office in Bossangoa. The Ministry of Health and the NGOs had agreed on a response strategy that comprised of several axes of intervention, including sanitary evaluations and supplying medicine and medical equipment. Since the beginning of the year, WHO had been able to provide 200,000 people with medicine, which had been distributed by WHO partners on the ground. The organization was also trying to set up an ambulance service to permit the transportation of primary and secondary ill people.

The whole country was in health crisis with the worst health indicators in the world. Life expectancy had been of 49 in 1998, and 47 in 2010, infant mortality stood at 173 for 1,000 births. There had been a health crisis for years which was compounded with the recent conflict. For security reasons, medical staff were not going to work, there was a chronic lack of medicine as well as a drop in the immunization rates.

Adrian Edwards, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), informed that UNHCR was sending additional protection and other teams to Central African Republic in view of the deteriorating situation and reports of new displacements. Staff had begun to arrive earlier in the week and more were on their way.

In Bangui, UNHCR staff were reporting continued shooting and a mood of wide fear. The previous day, at the outskirts of Bangui, UNCHR had come across some 40,000 people who had been uprooted on 5 and 6 December, but who had been out of reach until now because of heavy fighting. In Bangui alone, UNCHR believed that some 210,000 people had been displaced just in the previous two weeks.

Mr. Edwards stated that, amid the insecurity and food shortages, many women and children from Bangui had fled across the Ubangi River to seek asylum in Zongo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Although the border was officially closed, 1,815 people had managed to cross into Zongo over the previous weekend, bringing to 3,292 the total number of CAR refugees to have arrived there since 5 December. Many of the new arrivals had reported witnessing atrocities, and had told UNHCR that displaced people camping at Bangui airport were planning to join them in Zongo. UNCHR had had to temporarily suspend aid distribution because of security incidents, some of which were related to sectarian violence.

In Bossangoa, 400 km northwest of Bangui, anti-Balak groups had looted shops and burned houses in the northern part of the town over the weekend. That area was largely populated by Muslims. Some 5,600 people had become displaced since renewed fighting had started between former Seleka fighters and armed anti-Balaka groups almost a fortnight earlier. The newly displaced had joined the more than 4,000 already staying on the premises of the overcrowded Liberté school.

UNHCR was continuing to hear of attacks against Christians by former Seleka, with looting, killing and houses being set on fire. As well as at the school, since September 40,000 people had found sanctuary inside Bossangoa’s Roman Catholic church. Tensions were reported at the church between the regional Africa force, known as FOMAC, and anti-Balaka youth who were resisting disarmament. The youth were armed with agricultural tools and machetes but had refused to surrender them.

Mr. Edwards stressed that UNHCR was extremely concerned by the presence of armed elements within sites hosting displaced people. UNHCR had requested French troops supported by FOMAC to step up patrols in troubled neighbourhoods and in the makeshift sites.

Anti-Balaka groups were reported to be threatening further attacks against ex-Seleka forces unless they disarmed in and around the city of Paoua, located 131 kilometres from Bossangoa and near the Chadian border. In Beboura, 30 km northeast of Paoua, ex-Seleka had reportedly clashed with an armed group calling itself Groupe de Revendication pour la Paix. Hundreds of civilians had gone hiding into the bushes, while others had left their cars and motorbikes at the FOMAC base for fear of seeing them looted.

Mr. Edwards informed that more than 710, 000 people had been uprooted within CAR since the current crisis began a year earlier, while over 75,000 others had fled into exile. Numbers of displaced over the previous two weeks was not currently available.

Asked about details of atrocities taking place in CAR, Mr. Edwards responded that not many details were currently available, but there had been wide-spread reporting on various human rights violations, shootings, killings, sexual and gender-based violence. Access was extremely problematic.

On the question whether rebel forces were close to the airport, Mr. Edwards said that he would look into UNHCR reports and provide additional information, if available.

Mr. Edwards explained that often there was no clear separation of civilian population from armed groups, which included former Seleka fighters and various vigilante groups. UNCHR was not yet in a position to have a proper analysis.

Laos

Ms. Shamdasani said that 15 December had marked one year since the disappearance of Sombath Somphone, a human rights defender in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR). Mr. Somphone had been well-respected for his work on development and education, and also on contentious issues surrounding land confiscation.

Ms. Shamdasani stated that, while noting the explanations provided on a number of occasions in the previous year by the Government of Lao PDR on the status of the official investigation, the High Commissioner had appealed to the Government once again to strengthen its efforts to undertake a transparent and thorough investigation and to devote all available resources to ensure Mr Somphone's immediate and safe return to his family.

New information continued to emerge that Mr Somphone had been held in police and military custody immediately following his disappearance. A group of UN independent experts had also issued a joint statement the previous day highlighting the case and their concerns, including the chilling effect which Mr. Somphone’s continued disappearance was having on human rights defenders operating in the country.

International Migrants Day

Leonard Doyle, for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), said that 18 December was the International Migrants Day. In 2013, the focus was on migrant deaths on world borders, as this year might have been the costliest year on record in terms of lives lost for migrants seeking to cross international borders clandestinely. The estimated figure for 2013 stood at 2,360 migrant deaths, which was almost certainly an underestimate, as data from a number of regions around the world, particularly Africa and the Middle East, were not fully known. Info-graphics were available on the IOM website.

IOM had been focused on the shocking deaths of migrants, be it in Lampedusa, Christmas Island, the Bahamas, or the border between Mexico and the United States. IOM was stressing the need to find strategies and take joint actions, in order to reduce and avoid such meaningless deaths.

Asked about the breakdown on the causes of death of migrants between the US and Mexico, Mr. Doyle said that there was a wide variety of causes worldwide. For the Mexican-US border, a number of factors had likely been at play but IOM had no specific breakdown of these.

Mr. Doyle also brought attention to an appeal by the IOM to the international community for financial support to continue providing immediate post arrival humanitarian assistance to thousands of Ethiopian migrants from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The number of returnees had surpassed the projected 120,000 migrants within a month and the Government of Ethiopia and IOM were now looking at an additional 35,000 migrants expected to arrive from the cities of Riyadh, Jeddah and Medina.

Geneva activities

Ms. Vellucci informed that a memorial service in honour of former South African President Nelson Mandela would take place at 11 a.m. today, 17 December in Room XX.

Jens Laerke, for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), reminded of the press conference at 11:30 in Room III, on the subject of humanitarian situation in Haiti and response plan 2014. Peter de Clercq, Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Haiti, and Johan Peleman, Head of OCHA Office in Haiti, would speak.

Ms. Vellucci said that the 26th round of the Geneva International Discussions would take place on 17 and 18 December. Following the meeting on 18 December, several press conferences would take place in Room III, starting at approximately 5 p.m.

Rolando Gomez, for the Human Rights Council (HRC), informed that, at an organizational meeting the previous day, the Human Rights Council had elected its new bureau for 2014 appointing Baudelaire Ndong Ella of Gabon to serve as its President for a term beginning on 1 January 2014. The Council also appointed Kateøina Sequensová of the Czech Republic, Alberto D'Alotto of Argentina, Maurizio Enrico Serra of Italy, and Dilip Sinha of India to the positions of Vice Presidents to the United Nations’ leading human rights body. Ambassador Sequensová had also been elected to fill the post of Rapporteur. All five candidates would serve as members of the Human Rights Council Bureau from 1 January to 31 December 2014.

Ms. Catherine Sibut, for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), announced the launch of the 2013 Statistics Manual. That manual would also be available online and the updates would follow. The numbers would concern investment, commodity trade, navy transportation, price of goods and services. The original document would be printed, and the online version would be updated. Ms. Sibut explained that one of the issues covered was the evolution of South-South market.


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The representatives of the International Labour Organization, the International Trade Centre and the United Nations Children’s Fund also attended the briefing, but did not speak.

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The webcast for this briefing is available here: … http://webtv.un.org/media/geneva-press-briefings/watch/geneva-press-briefing-ocha-jsr-syria-hrc-ohchr-unhcr-wfp-who-iom-unctad/2941721647001